The Indian Removal Act

On the Trail of Tears

The Indians in the South were constantly under pressure from white settlers. Only the federal government had the ability to protect the Indians. President Jackson removed that federal protection. He then proceeded to pass the Indian Removal Act to force the Native American population to move West of the Mississippi.


Jackson’s views in favor of the removal of Indians to the west were well known before he was elected. His position on this matter was one of the main reasons for his support in the South. The major issue was focused around determining the future of “The Five ‘Civilized Tribes’” (the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole.) Through a treaty agreement, these tribes occupied large areas of Georgia, Alabama, part of Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida. In 1822, the federal government commissioned geographer Jedidiah Morse to survey the Native Americans. He reported back on the tremendous transformation these tribes had undergone. They lived in villages, farmed the land and practiced animal husbandry in the same way as their white neighbors. Large numbers of Native Americans had even converted to Christianity, thanks to the efforts of the Christian missionaries who had established schools there.
Despite the major lifestyle changes of the Native Americans, the white settlers in the states remained envious and wanted the lands the Indians occupied for themselves. The states insisted they had rights to the lands the Indians inhabited. They also asserted that the treaties granting the Native Americans any land were to be ignored. The fact the Indians were successful economically worked against what the white settlers had hoped. The newly prosperous Indians had not need to sell any of their lands. Furthermore, these thriving tribes had no incentive to sell their land.
Georgia was the most vigorous in taking actions against the Native Americans. During the Adams administration Georgia did whatever it could to push out the Cherokee and Creek nations. President Adams vigorously objected to the actions of Georgia. Adams often called in Federal troops to protect the Native Americans. However, Georgia was determined to continue to act against the Indians. With the election of Jackson it believed, rightly, it would have a green light. In December 1828, the Georgia legislature passed a law stating that starting in 1830 Georgian law would be imposed on the Indian areas. The Georgians claimed (as they ignored the treaties signed between the US government and the Indians) that the Indians were just “tenants at will”. Once the Jackson administration took office, Secretary of War Eaton, ordered the withdrawal of federal troops. Without the support of federal troops the Native Americans were left to the mercy of the Georgians.

President Jackson was not satisfied with taking just a passive role regarding the Indians. Instead, Jackson wanted to pass his own “Indian Removal Act”. This act would voluntarily remove the Native American from their lands, and transfer them to lands in the West. While the law claimed the removal would be “voluntary”, that was a mere technicality. As everyone believed that once the Indian Removal Act was passed there would be no way to stop the removal of the Indians. Some thought it important that the act would at least mandate Indians receive compensation. Others reluctantly supported the legislations believing that it was better that the Indians be removed under federal law than by states in defilement of Federal Law. Despite Jackson’s popularity he had a hard time passing the Indian Removal Act. The Act was not popular in the North. Christian missionary were vocal opponents of the Act. Opponents considered the Indian Removal Act immoral, and a repudiation of years of treaties.

President Adams called the removal “a perpetual harrow upon my feelings”. As a result of the intense opposition to the Act, it passed by only 2 votes in the House of Representatives; and only after the President put pressure on Pennsylvania Democrats to change their votes and support the measure.

After the bill passed, the government began with the Choctaws. It cost $5 million to move the first Indians – despite the fact Jackson had promised it would cost only $2 million to move all of the Native tribes. Once the Choctaws had been moved Jackson turned to the other tribes. He started placing as much pressure as he could on them. He cut off funding for the missionary schools. He stated publicly that he would ignore all existing treaty responsibilities of the US government. The Cherokees then decided to turn to the courts for protection. The first lawsuit was ‘Cherokee Nation v. Georgia’. The justices in this case decided to sidestep the issues, by ruling on procedural matters. Thus, they avoided a ruling the court feared would put it in a confrontation with the Executive branch. However, the court could not avoid the issue when it took the case of ‘Worcester vs. Georgia’. In that case the state of Georgia had imprisoned two missionaries to pressure them to support the Removal Act. These missionaries were arrested on Indian lands and appealed their imprisonment to the Supreme Court. In this case, John Marshall, writing for the court stated that: “the Cherokees were protected within their lands, and in which the law of Georgia can have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees. ” The court had no way to enforce its decision. Jackson chose to ignore it completely.
This is how one of the most woeful acts in American history took shape. The forced removal of ten of thousands of Native Americans, who were living their lives in lands granted them just a generation earlier by the American government.